For many people, it’s a familiar scene: You’re sitting on the couch, unwinding after a long day, when someone knocks on the door. Suddenly, your home is echoing with alarmed barking, a streak of dog racing toward the now threatening entrance to your home, determined to let your guests know this house is protected.
This scenario is one of the most common complaints dog trainers hear: my dog barks at the door when people come over. So why do dogs bark at the door and what can you do to teach your dog a better response?
Dogs bark for a lot of reasons: fear, to alert you, to demand something, for attention, out of boredom, because they just enjoy it, to make themselves seem big and scary, to communicate with another dog… I could probably fill a page with potential reasons your dog is barking. So while it’s nice to know the reason (and in some cases it is fairly obvious or can be guessed), most of the time you can train your dog to stop whether or not you know why it’s happening.
For almost all unwanted behaviors, the most effective way to train your dog to stop is to replace the unwanted behavior with a behavior you do like. My favorite alternative to barking at the door is a “place” cue. Place teaches your dog to go to a particular spot (generally somewhere comfortable like a bed or mat works best) and stay there until you tell them it is okay to leave that spot.
To teach your dog to go to a place instead of barking at the door, your eventual goal will be that the cue to do "place" is someone knocking or ringing your doorbell. So the finished behavior will go something like this: someone knocks, your dog goes and lays on their place, you let in the visitor and then tell your dog a release word (I like “free”) that means you can now come off the bed and greet the visitor.
Note: If your dog is fearful of visitors, this scenario may play out a little differently. In that situation, you are probably better off having them go somewhere out of sight when guests arrive (such as their crate or a separate room) and then bringing them out once everyone is settled on leash to work on some counter-conditioning (see my earlier post on fear for a few details about that).
But if your dog is comfortable enough around strangers that they can greet them nicely once they have calmed down, the place cue can be a great option.
If you have never trained or seen a "place" cue before, this video by Kikopup demonstrates one way to train it. (And if you are not following Kikopup on YouTube, I highly recommend her channel for great dog training videos!)
Generally, I start a place by standing near the dog’s bed and breaking down the behavior into baby steps – the dog moves toward the bed, or puts one foot on, I mark the behavior as good (with a click or a “yes”) and reward. I always reward on the bed when beginning this cue so they start to associate the bed with good things. Once they understand going on the bed, I add in the cue (I use “place” – some people, like in the Kikopup video, use a cue such as “go to your bed”). Then I start to build a “stay” while they are on the bed and add in the release cue, “free,” so they learn that is when they are allowed to leave the bed.
For working this with the door, I will eventually enlist the help of another person to beginning adding in a door knock or doorbell ring. The first time, I will have them knock softly or ring the doorbell once. As soon as that sound happens, I’ll cue “place” and heavily reward the dog for doing the place cue instead of running to the door barking. You want going to their place to be more exciting than the door, so you need to use a lot of high-value reinforcement in the beginning. The first few times, they may still want to go to the door, and it is okay to talk in an excited voice, move around in a fun way or use a few extra treats as you are first teaching this to get them really into doing the place instead. If this is still too hard, start with just one soft knock, even if it is you knocking on the wall where they can see it.
Like any behavior, if you have trouble teaching this on your own, or it is not working for your dog, it’s a good idea to enlist the help of a qualified trainer. But if you train this behavior correctly, it can be a fantastic tool that gives you a much calmer dog when guests come over and less stress for you when someone is at the door.
I live with a dog who is a bundle of nerves. Someone walks by the door? THREAT. A dog is walking off leash at the park? THREAT. That squirrel looked at me funny? THREAT.
Percy sounds scary when he barks at these “threats.” He vocalizes at the top of his lungs, throws himself around, and tries to make himself as big and intimidating as possible.
Why? Because he’s scared.
Dogs express fear in a number of ways. Some cower, or try to hide. Some try to escape and become defensive if that doesn’t work (flight or fight!). Some bark or lunge to try to make themselves seem more threatening to scare off what they perceive as frightening. Some growl or even bite, sometimes with serious force. Some just shut down completely.
In their minds, these responses are all perfectly reasonable. The dog barking at everyone at the park may seem aggressive, but in his mind he is just trying to keep all the scary things at a distance. The dog who growled at you when you reached your hand out to pet him was trying to warn you that he was uncomfortable and needed space.
If we think about our own phobias, it makes sense. People who are very afraid of spiders might run away screaming, or they might smash that spider over and over again until they are damn well sure it’s dead.
Just like in humans, dogs can develop fear in a number of ways. Sometimes there is a very clear explanation – they were attacked by a dog on a walk, so dogs on walks become scary. Sometimes they had a seemingly small experience during an important period in their development, like the incredibly vital puppy socialization period during the first few months of their life. And like with some people, some fears don’t have a logical or obvious cause.
So how do we address fear in dogs? Because it is an emotion, and not a behavior, we generally go to classical conditioning, which means we are trying to change an association instead of teach an action. Many trainers use counter-conditioning and desensitization to help a dog work through a fear. Counter-conditioning is when you pair a previously scary or “bad” thing with a lot of really, really good things to try to change the emotion paired with it. Desensitization is slow exposure to that same scary thing, first at a comfortable distance and then gradually closer as they become more okay with it.
One very important thing to remember here: we do not want to move the dog past his or her threshold too soon. The threshold is the point at which they become too uncomfortable to avoid reacting. They should be aware that the thing they are afraid of is present, but feel reasonably safe. Once they are over threshold, they have locked into the emotional part of their brain, the thinking part is gone, and you are probably doing more harm than good. If that happens, get them away and give them a break.
Another important element of fear and stress is the physical effect it has on your dog’s body. They release cortisol when they have a bad or anxiety-inducing experience, and that can stay in their system for a few days. So multiple scary experiences happening in those few days can cause what’s known as trigger stacking, where they start reacting more and to things that seem less scary or important to us.
So a basic set-up for working with a dog who is afraid: if you have a dog who is afraid of other dogs, set your dog up in an area where they can be a large distance from other dogs and can escape quickly if needed. Have a large number of very high-value treats ready (chicken, hot dogs and cheese are great options for this). As soon as the scary dog appears, treats happen. The dog is gone, they stop. The dog appears, treats happen. And so on. (A note: If you dog stops taking food, and it is food that they love, they are probably over threshold. Put yourself at a further distance and try again, or give your dog a break.)
This of course works best if the other dog is fairly calm and being handled by someone who knows what is going on, so they don’t put too much pressure on your dog and push them over threshold. It is ideal to try to find a way to set up your dog for success and to limit their exposure to situations where they will feel trapped and terrified, which can make the fear worse.
This example can be translated to any fears – if your dog is scared of thunder, for example, play a recording of thunder at a very low volume paired with lots of yummy treats, and gradually increase the volume as they become more comfortable.
The dog I mentioned at the start of this post, Percy, has made a lot of progress using these methods. But he’s a pretty extreme case, and still has a long way to go. Sometimes working with dogs who are afraid can take a lot of patience and time. But the payoff for helping a fearful dog become more confident and helping them realize the things they found scary aren’t actually so bad is tremendous.
A final note: I highly recommend finding a qualified trainer to help you work through these exercises. I also recommend this fantastic Sophia Yin handout, available to download as a PDF at that link, which shows common body language signals that your dog is anxious or fearful (which are overlooked by many dog owners).
Good luck and happy training!
Imagine this: You go to work every day. Forty hours a week, you do everything your boss asks of you. At the end of the month, instead of a paycheck, your boss says, “You did what you were supposed to do because I’m your boss.”
Would you be motivated to go back to work and do a good job?
There are a few common complaints that all reward-based trainers hear: “I don’t want to bribe my dog to get them to listen to me.” “My dog should work for me just because they love me!” “My dog doesn’t even like treats.”
All of these are closely linked to one of the most important elements of training: Motivation.
So, think back to the work scenario. Would you be more likely to do a good job if your boss was complimenting you when you worked hard? How about if he or she was giving you a bonus when you did a particularly good job?
The concern over using treats with our dogs has some validity. Many people use treats incorrectly in training, sometimes creating dogs who will only work when food is visible or who constantly need a high rate of reinforcement. There are a few simple things you can do to prevent these issues.
First of all, try to keep treats out of sight until AFTER the dog has done a behavior you want to reward. This can be accomplished by keeping treats in a pouch or pocket and by using a marker. A marker can be a click from a clicker or a word like “yes” that lets your dog know the moment they have done the right thing – it’s like taking a picture of the good behavior. Once the dog realizes this word or sound means they have done something good and they will be getting a reward, they will immediately associate the sound with the right behavior and you have a buffer to get the treat out after the marker happens.
What does this look like in an actual training session? Say you are teaching a sit. As soon as the dog sits down, you click or say “yes,” and then get a treat out of your bag and offer it to them. Cue, marker, reward. So the dog is still being reinforced for the behavior, but you don’t have to have a treat ready to get them to listen to a cue.
Secondly, vary your rewards. If you give the same treat every time, the same way, the dog may learn but they will fall into a pattern and expect the treat, or they may get bored with training. If you use different rewards, and vary how often and how much you reward, your training will be much more effective. So, for example, you may reward with a treat one time, a toy the next time, a jackpot of treats for a really good behavior, and maybe a bit of praise or attention for something still good but not as important or precise.
This is also linked to the “But my dog doesn’t like treats!” issue. All dogs need food, so food is always a reinforcer. But it is true that some dogs like food more than others. Dogs who are not as treat motivated may benefit from working for their food throughout the day instead of having it fed to them in meals. It is also a good idea to have a variety of high-value food options like hot dogs, cheese, freeze-dried liver and lung, or boiled chicken available to reinforce in distracting situations or for really great behaviors.
But why use food at all? This goes back to the work example. Your dog may love you, but if you want them to consistently and excitedly listen to your cues it is important that they are motivated to do so. There are a lot of distractions in the world, and because they see us every day, it is easy for those distractions to become more exciting than listening to you. Is the normal attention you give them every day more exciting than a squirrel or another dog? For some dogs it may be, but for most dogs, the squirrel is going to win out every time. Cues taught with rewards the dog values, practiced consistently until they become almost automatic, are much more likely to hold up in exciting real-life situations.
This does not mean the rewards always have to be food: anything the dog values can be a reward. Food tends to be the highest value reward for most dogs, but if they love toys, attention, petting, play, movement – any of these can be used as to reinforce them for good behavior.
Think about it this way, too: You may be happy to do a favor for a family member or friend because you care about them, but if they are constantly asking for favors without giving you anything in return, you may start to feel frustrated or avoid responding to their requests. So, yes, your dog may do things for you because they love you; but they deserve a little love and reinforcement in return.
If you're reading this blog, or on my website at all, you probably have a dog, or love dogs, or are just interested in dog behavior.
A little about me: I'm a dog trainer in the Austin area. I've had dogs my entire life, and they've always been family. When I started training several years ago, I had recently graduated from the University of Texas with a Master of Arts in Journalism, and while I was applying for jobs in that field, I didn't feel the passion that I felt working with dogs. I decided to ignore my degree and follow my heart to dog training, and I never looked back.
Currently, my "day job" is training service dogs with a fantastic non-profit. By night (and on weekends), I offer private lessons covering a variety of behaviors, but especially love working with dogs that other people consider difficult - dogs who are reactive, or fearful, or aggressive. I love figuring out each dog's unique strengths and how to help them reach their full potential.
I hope that this blog can be a place for me to detail my journey, particularly with my own long-term project dog, Percy, and provide help to others and their dogs along the way. I'll try to post training tips about once a week on a variety of subjects (feel free to request topics in the comments here or on my Facebook page!).
So again, welcome - Look for another post in the next few days with my first training tips, and if you aren't already, follow me on Facebook to keep up-to-date on everything going on in the doggie world.
Sarah is a trainer in the Austin/Dripping Springs area specializing in reactive dogs and service dogs. She lives with a bundle of doggie mischief named Percy.